By Mark Norris,
July 29, 2015

I am on record that Tennessee’s ranking in the latest Annie E. Casey Foundation annual report on children’s well-being is unacceptable.

For a state that prides itself in being first in everything from lowest state debt per capita to highest growth in personal income in the Southeast, it’s wrong that we rank 36th in child well-being because so many of our children live in poverty.

The report, Kids Count, compiles 16 different measures across four major categories of how children are faring in the states. The new 2015 report released last week ranks Tennessee 36th overall — the same as 2014.

The good news is that we improved or remained the same in 11 of 16 measures, but conditions in the state worsened on five indicators — two of which concern economic well-being. Of the four “domains” of children’s well-being, the state ranks 38th in economic measures, 37th in family and community, 36th in education, and 30th in health.

Our economy is the great equalizer in this equation. According to Casey, the number of children whose parents lack secure employment and children in poverty has increased in Tennessee. Although we are working hard and meeting with success on a number of fronts, we must do better for future generations.

Tennessee is not alone. In 2014, I launched a nationwide initiative called “State Pathways to Prosperity,” a workforce development and education initiative of The Council of State Governments, which I chaired last year.

Our goal is to help all states close the pervasive “skills gap” between 21st century manufacturing opportunities that abound and the current realities of a workforce ill-equipped to do the jobs that are available.

Child poverty and nutrition are specifically addressed in the Pathways to Prosperity initiative as challenges all states must address.

What are we doing here in Tennessee? Drive to 55 and Tennessee Promise are providing last-dollar scholarships and mentoring for traditional students to continue their education after high school at no additional taxpayer expense. Tennessee Reconnect is making it possible for adults to return to colleges of applied technology and community colleges.

These initiatives will soon have a positive impact because it is well established that those who have certificates or college degrees have much higher earning capacity.

Last year, I authored and implemented LEAP — the Labor Education Alignment Program, which recently helped provide funding for, among 12 programs statewide, the new Greater Memphis Alliance for a Competitive Workforce. Through LEAP, we are providing on-the-job training and internships for students who are eager to connect with the private sector.

What else can we do in the meantime? According to Kids Count, boosting a family’s earned income early in life positively impacts cognitive development as well as academic achievement and adult earnings. That is one of the reasons we provided start-up funding this year for a new Center for Health and Justice Involved Youth at the University of Tennessee’s College of Medicine in Memphis.

According to Casey, “Neuroscience provides evidence of why the earliest years are so critical: Early brain development plays a key role in establishing the neural functions and structures that shape future cognitive, social, emotional and health outcomes.”

Working together with the state Department of Children’s Services, The Urban Child Institute, Memphis Research Consortium, the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Task Force of Shelby County and others, UT hopes to bring its resources in psychiatry and neuroscience to bear as of one of the top medical colleges in the United States.

Finally, one of the additional impediments to prosperity for children is all too often a juvenile justice system that fails to distinguish between those deserving of a second chance and those for whom rehabilitation is less productive. We must better allocate resources for the right result.

De-institutionalizing status (nonviolent) offenders and keeping them out of jail is critical if we are to succeed. I will lead a team of juvenile justice experts from Tennessee to a 50-state forum sponsored by The Council of State Governments’ Justice Center on “Improving Outcomes for Youth in the Juvenile Justice System” to Austin, Texas, in November.

Annie E. Casey reminds me of the canary in the coal mine. Our children’s well-being and our ability to nurture it is a harbinger. We can rise to this challenge just as we’ve done in other ways in the past. We are doing better in Tennessee, but we must do better still.

Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, is the Tennessee Senate majority leader.

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